The People's Platform:
Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age
(Get it here.)
So far, digital culture has had a convoluted history. For most of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the lines in the sand seemed clear enough: on one side were the legacy content industries, exemplified by institutions like the RIAA and the MPAA, those infamous acronyms that fought tooth and nail to protect the idea that art and culture were private property. On the other was the freewheeling web, which promoted more democratic ideas about what it meant to create, to be an author, to be a cultural participant. (As I argue in Decomposition, my forthcoming book, these were not new ideas, but rather new articulations of old ones.) The point is that whichever side you chose, the choice itself seemed uncomplicated: either you were for the new way, or you were for the old one.
At the same time I want to push back against the impression Taylor leaves that the problem of techno-utopian wealth concentration (and the concomitant impoverishment of the creative class) is ultimately a function of the philosophy of “free culture” and its expression in the everyday practices of audiences. Of course, the regret narrative is right to point out that that philosophy can be, and has been, used for problematic ends. The digital era has produced its own brand of charlatanism, and Taylor is right to expose it. (Though I should add that her analysis of Lawrence Lessig is incomplete; she praises Lessig's critique of copyright law, but then adds that he “ignores the problem of commercialism”—overlooking the fact that for the last seven years Lessig has been focused not on defending file sharing kids but on getting money out of politics).
Because of the philosophy of “free culture”, Taylor suggests, we now blithely assume
that traditional gatekeepers will crumble and middlemen will wither. The new orthodoxy envisions the Web as a kind of Robin Hood, stealing audience and influence away from the big and giving to the small. Networked technologies will put professionals and amateurs on an even playing field, or even give the latter an advantage. Artists and writers will thrive without institutional backing, able to reach their audiences directly. A golden age of sharing and collaboration will be ushered in, modeled on Wikipedia and open source software.
What we have needed for a while now is a radical disruption of some sort. Perhaps the Internet was that disruption—or perhaps it merely made us aware of the ideas that will make that disruption possible. In either case, we should be careful of banishing those ideas to the dustbin of history, just because we have not yet been able to take full advantage of them.